Story of the Eye. George Bataille, Penguin Books, 1982 (1928).
It’s always a strange thing to spend so much time thinking about a book - hearing it discussed in conversation or continually referenced in articles - yet having never actually personally experienced the thing itself. (for me: Ulysses, Proust, most of Jane Austen). With the idea of it you may begin to develop a strange relationship; something so powerful and convincing as to seem entirely real, almost as though you have, in fact, read it yourself.
I had been meaning to read Story of the Eye for at least a couple of years, ever since I went to a lecture on its author George Bataille by the performance artist Ron Athey. I had already attributed images for the book in my mind - not borrowed from any concrete external source, like a televised Pride and Prejudice - but built up over time through snippets of conversation and my own rather warped assumptions.
In such a scenario as this it is so often the case that reality will fall short of high expectations. This has happened so many times with cinema that I’ve given up reading reviews and now pursue them post-viewing only in order to compare my opinion to those ‘in the know.’ With Story of the Eye, however, my first, direct experience with the book was, I discovered, happily un-compromised. By the second page I seemed to forget all that had been said, thought, presumed; in short, all that I had believed I ‘knew’.
I have no authority on the matter of literature other than that of a common reader, but Story of the Eye is quite remarkable. Published in 1928, the same year as Woolf’s Orlando, it is pornography meets art; highly compressed, studded with symbolism, sex on every page.
I don’t wish to write a review here, it would be ironic in light of what has been said. It’s just not often that I read a book in one sitting, tiny though it may be, and find images continually surfacing in my mind for days on end (a white sheet waving from a prison window; a couple cycling naked through darkened fields; eggs floating in a toilet bowl; the pierced eye of a matador).
Here are two interesting extracts taken from Susan Sontag’s essay ‘On Pornography’ which in included in this Penguin edition:
‘The difficulty (of pornography accepted as ‘art’) arises because so many critics continue to identify with prose literature itself the particular literary conventions of ‘realism.’…an uprooting of some of these tenacious cliches is long overdue: it will promote a sounder reading of literature of the past as well as put critics and ordinary readers better in touch with contemporary literature, which includes zones of writing that structurally resemble pornography. It is facile, virtually meaningless, to demand that literature stuck with the ‘human’, For the matter at stake is not ‘human’ verses ‘inhuman’ (in which choosing the ‘human’ guarantees instant moral self-congratulation for both author and reader) but an infinitely varied register of forms and tonalities for transporting the human voice into prose narrative. For the critic, the proper question is not the relationship between the book and ‘the world’ or ‘reality’ (in which each novel is judged as if it were a unique item, and in which the world is regarded as a far less complex place than it is) but the complexities of consciousness itself, as the medium through which a world exists at all and is constituted, and an approach to single books of fiction which doesn’t slight the fact that they exist in dialogue with each other.’
‘Bataille composed most of his books, the chamber music of pornographic literature, in recit form (sometimes accompanied by an essay). Their unifying theme is Bataille’s own consciousness, a consciousness in an acute, unrelenting state of agony; but as an equally extradordinary mind in an earlier age might have written a theology of agony, Bataille has written an erotics of agony. Willing to tell something of the autobiographical sources of his narrative, he appended to Story of the Eye some vivid imagery from his own outrageously terrible childhood. (One memory: his blind, syphilitic, insane father trying unsuccessfully to urinate.) Time has neutralized these memories, he explains; after many years, they have largely lost their power over him and ‘can only come to life again, deformed, hardly recognizable, having in the course of this deformation taken on an obscene meaning.’